AUBG Alumni Talks: Elvin Guri (’96) Talks Life after Graduation, Lessons from History and Giving Back
AUBG's largest alum donor, Albanian-born Elvin Guri (’96) has donated $1,100,000 to the university and has provided more than 250 students with scholarships. His contribution, however, goes beyond monetary support -- Guri has been actively involved with the university as a Board member for many years. We reached out to him to learn more about his perspective on the importance of alumni engagement, why he stayed in Bulgaria and his advice for recent grads.
An Oxford Said Business School EMBA graduate and CEO of € 21 million fund Empower Capital Fund, Guri studied Economics and History at AUBG. Upon graduation, he spent six years working as an associate banker in the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in London and then co-founded JetFinance International, the largest independent consumer finance lender in SEE. JetFinance, a multi-million dollar business, was acquired by BNP Paribas Personal Finance in July 2007.
Guri holds the Distinguished AUBG Alumni Award for Social Innovation and Change which was established by HRH Princess Maria Louisa to recognize the AUBG alumni who have contributed to their community and to the advancement of society while developing themselves personally and professionally. During the Donor Recognition Dinner 2020, the alumnus received the Dimi and Yvonne Panitza Visionary Award.
What’s the story behind you choosing to study at AUBG?
I didn’t choose to study at AUBG. It was the only option available. This was in 1991. Albania had just opened up and there were not many opportunities. We knew – my friends and I – that there were scholarships being offered at the Italian embassy by the Italian government and that was obviously the dream. When we went to the Italian embassy, there was a crowd of people and I just did not want to stand in line. I mean, I was small then, I am small now – I’d be crushed there.
At some point, a friend said: “Did you hear about this American University in Bulgaria? Let’s give it a shot.” We went to the Soros Foundation which was handling the application process, both of us took the applications, both of us applied, I got admitted, he didn’t. The driving force was study outside Albania, not so much picking Bulgaria or the American university. So, in that sense, it was very serendipitous that I ended up where I did.
How did your education prepare you for your career path?
I can’t say that I had this motivation when I started studying. I studied economics because my father told me I had to study something useful; otherwise, I’d die of hunger. And economics was supposed to be useful. I am not so sure now. And I studied history because if I had a choice, left to my own devices, that’s what I would do. And I’ve decided that before I retire, or perhaps after I retire I’ll get a graduate degree in history. Now, how did the [two majors] end up being useful to each other and to me? Recently, I read an expression that the most undervalued asset on Wall Street is history books. But I’ve come to think that it is not just on Wall Street but generally humanity has a rather short memory. Those people who have a certain understanding, or pay attention, or read history, perhaps are a bit better prepared — if not so much to avoid or to circumvent events, but rather to navigate them. As for economics, it was a cultural clash, really, in the sense that nothing that I have studied so far prepared me for what Economics 101 had to offer. And that does change you and the way you think: I would say at a cellular, molecular level. Having said that, on the first day of work I understood that I did not know anything.
Most of what the university gives you is not so much in the actual knowledge, unless you are a doctor or an engineer and so on, but it builds character and it prepares you to react to circumstances, to learn from them. It teaches habits and discipline more than the actual knowledge. Overtime, if you have been lucky enough for some of that knowledge to still reside in your brain, you can put that knowledge against the practical experience that you have gained and thus become not just smarter but also hopefully wiser.
What are the reasons why you decided to stay in Bulgaria?
I considered it as a pit stop, as a temporary stop to my eventual return to Albania. I have promised my father that I would eventually work with him and that I’d build my own business. Never did I think that I would work for a company or for a corporation. Even when I was at the university. I thought of Bulgaria as a good way to enrich myself, my experience professionally and prepare myself for an eventual return to Albania. And then in 2001-2002 two things happened: I decided to start my own business and I met my future wife. So, my options narrowed down considerably.
What motivates you to give back to AUBG?
You leave AUBG but it never leaves you. Even those alumni that do not actively participate in the life of the university or in the life of the Alumni Association or that do not donate regularly have extremely strong opinions and feelings about the university. It is almost unavoidable that when you get together with AUBG graduates the topic of the university and what’s going on at the university, comes up. So in that sense it was almost inevitable that whenever I got the opportunity, and the chance and the means, I would do something for the university. I did not realize it at the time, but as I’ve grown older and I’ve become wiser I realized that it was bound to happen. And I am convinced, I am convinced that that is the case for most – if not all – AUBG graduates.
Why is it especially important to support the university now during the COVID-19 crisis?
The crisis exacerbates the weaknesses of institutions. And for an institution like ours that is still not in the greatest situation, especially because most of its students – close to 60% -- rely on Work and Travel Programs to finance their continued education, I feel it is not just important, it is vital that we support or provide extra support to the university so that it can support these students for whom the crisis has created not simply health issues but also educational issues. Many of them have to reconsider today whether they will take a leave of absence or, if they come back, how will they and their families be able to support themselves during the next academic year. So I think it [depends on] us, the alumni, to help out not so much the institution but the students that have come after us, in the hope that they will show the same support for the students that will come after them.
What advice would you give to students who will graduate and start their careers amid those uncertain times?
I don’t think there is anyone in the world, except for those people who live extremely isolated, that has not suffered or felt the effects of this pandemic. There have been the tragic health results of the pandemic, there have been the obvious economic effects, and the not-so-obvious psychological effects. And I feel especially for graduating students the current prospects for work and life seem a bit bleak. I have news for you: your twenties, the whole decade, will seem a bit bleak. Not so much because of this crisis. If it weren’t this, it would be something else. My feeling is that most of the psychological drama that one feels during the twenties comes from the result of the gap between aspirations and reality. As long as we keep the perspective that we are going to pursue these aspirations regardless of the current circumstances, then we can have a certain positive spin on what is going on today. Or, as the wise people said: this too shall pass.